The locals called it the “Old House”, although it had been redecorated and modernized so often that it looked no different from the other mansions nearby. This didn’t stop it from being the source of town gossip. Most people agreed that something terrible had happened at Whitechapel house, although the story had been changed and embellished so often that no one knew anymore what had really occurred. It was not something that should have been forgotten.
These rumours began again – as they always did – when the new family moved in. The families never lasted very long, a few years at most. Their occupation was usually doomed from the moment they had their first encounter with the dead. All people reacted differently when meeting a ghost for the first time – some screamed, others fainted, many cried. No one had ever reacted the way Margo Comeau did, which was to wait on the bench beside the lake all afternoon.
“You stalking me?”
Quint appeared on the bench beside Margo. He raised an eyebrow quizzically.
“I want to meet the others,” said Margo.
“The other ones. Like you.”
“The other dead people.”
“That’s sounds very politically incorrect,” said Margo, “but yes.”
“Why are you so interested in ghosts?”
“Because if you can be dead and still exist, then maybe there’s a chance that my – that, you know, maybe other people can still exist too.”
Quint glanced in the direction of something Margo couldn’t see. “Now’s not really a good time. But I guess you wouldn’t care.”
Quint rubbed his face. “I don’t think the ghosts are in a mood to meet people. Someone died last night.”
“I thought ghosts were already dead.”
“Not a ghost. The groundskeeper.”
“That’s the thing,” said Quint. “Looks like it was a murder.”
“What’s gonna happen?”
“Well,” said Quint, running a hand lazily through his hair. God, he’s gorgeous. “They’ve called a meeting of the ghost council. First one since the Chainer attacks.”
“What’s the council?”
“They’re in charge here. Scary as hell, but efficient.”
“I want to meet them.”
Quint laughed. “They don’t take well to the living.”
“I don’t feel the need to repeat myself.”
“If you want to face some angry spirits, be my guest,” said Quint. “But I’m not gonna help you out.”
“Take me to them,” said Margo. She was looking at the edges of Quint’s body – they were so solid, so normal. He looked alive. But every now and then, if she looked closely, she saw them become transparent, just for a moment.
Quint looked at her as if he was about to argue, then shrugged. “Follow me.”
They began walking across the lawns toward the little grove at the foot of the manor.
Casually, Quint said, “Do you have a death wish?”
“Just curious,” said Margo.
“Well, you know what they say about curiosity and its tendency to kill felines.”
“Luckily, I’m not a feline.”
Quint smirked. “If I didn’t know better, I’d swear your sudden interest in the afterlife is an elaborate way of flirting with me.”
“I’m not flirting with you.”
“You just said I was hot,” said Quint.
Don’t blush. “I didn’t,” said Margo.
“You did. With your eyes.”
“My eyes tend to lie,” said Margo.
“That must get you into a lot of trouble.”
“I like trouble,” said Quint. Every atom of Quint Oaken oozed flirting. And not a small amount of danger.
Margo steered the conversation toward more vanilla territory. “What were the other owners of the house like?”
Quint snorted. “All the same. Dickheads.”
“That’s a bit harsh.”
“Every person who’s ever lived in that house since I’ve been dead has either been scared of ghosts or looked down on us. People feel immortal when talking to the dead. That pisses me off. You seem to feel as if you’re gods who will never die.”
“Oh, have I offended Your Majesty?” said Quint. “Forgive me for not feeling bad.”
“And, for one thing, I don’t feel immortal at all,” said Margo, “In fact, I’m very aware of my mortality.”
“Trust me,” said the ghost. “So am I.”
“Little things make me think of dying,” Margo said, “Old couples. Young couples – because they’ll eventually be old. Or they’ll break up, which is also an end. Even ridiculous things like pizza. I’ll have a slice and when I reach the end and there’s no pizza left I’ll see it as a visual metaphor for my life and its inevitable expiration. Once, I was at a pizza party and they ran out of pepperoni. I ended up crying into my regina and cursing every deity or lack thereof. I’m broken.”
“You sound like a lot of fun at parties,” said Quint.
“I’m the life of them,” Margo agreed.
“That’s a bit insensitive.”
“Hypocrite. You’re the most insensitive person I’ve ever met,” Margo said.
“Not insensitive,” said Quint. “Delightful and rogue.”
The trees got denser around them. The grove got darker. Perhaps – just perhaps – Margo’s heartbeat began to quicken.
Up ahead, there were voices.
“We’re in danger. That can’t be ignored.”
“Don’t be so irrational.”
“The man’s dead. And almost certainly not by living means.”
Quint whispered, “Get behind that tree.”
Margo did. From behind it she could see a clearing. In it stood four figures. There were three girls, about nine years old – triplets. They had pigtails and wore dark dresses. They were obviously dead. Unlike Quint, they didn’t look alive. Their bodies were pale, shimmering in and out of sight. Like they were made of mist. In contrast, the fourth ghost was a woman in a white dress. Yin and yang in human form. They were speaking to each other in hushed – and urgent – tones.
“If the murder was unnatural,” said one of the triplets, “what will we have to do?”
“Maybe we should wait for Dragomir,” said the woman in white.
“We don’t have time.”
The woman sighed. “We’ll have to investigate.”
“Well, that depends on what we find out. If it the killer was living, we do nothing. If the killer was dead, we prepare for war.”
“You believe it’s such a great danger?” said a girl. She was opening and closing a locket.
The girls’ voices were far too old for their bodies. They sounded wise – and pained.
Few mortals, not even the families that lived in the house, saw the ghost council of Whitechapel. They were among the wisest ghosts, if not the oldest; the spirits of the long dead were best left alone. The Wren triplets – Tara, Reagan and Anna, although they had long forgotten their names – had been part of the council for decades.
“I think we should be more worried about the attention the death’s going to draw to the house,” said one of the Wren girls.
“Much indeed,” added another.
“We’ll have to deal with it,” said the third.
The girls had almost completely forgotten their living memories. Between the three of them, they could only remember one lifetime’s worth. They seemed to share their limited memories between themselves – functioning almost as a single person.
“Don’t talk to me like I’m stupid,” said the woman in white. “I know we’ll have to face the attention. But that’s just people. I’m talking about something else.”
“Don’t let superstitions run away with you,” said one of the girls.
“Don’t act blind,” said the woman.
The girl with the locket said, “We’re just looking at this situation for what it is.”
“You’re just scared of what we might find out.”
“I won’t sit here and listen to you talk about ancient evils and nursery rhyme witchcraft,” said the girl.
“They’re just stories,” said another of the triplets. “And if you tell them to the others, I’ll have to call you a liar.”
“The council stands together,” said the woman in white. “I believe you said that. Or you. It’s hard to tell where one of you stops and the other begins.”
“Stands together?” said the girl with the locket. “Not on this. If you really believe that demons are prowling this house, looking to extract pounds of flesh or drag away souls or whatever you seem to think they’re plotting, then we can’t take your side.”
“I never said anything about demons,” said the woman in white quietly, “I’d prefer demons.”
“What do you think?” asked the third triplet, one standing by herself, tracing her fingers along some leaves.
“I think we have to assume the worst.”
“Not you,” said the girl, “I was asking the two people listening in on our conversation.”
In Margo’s heart: a bolt of ice.
In Quint’s heart: shit.
Quint made a motion as if to slink away, but the girl said, “Come out, Quint.”
Quint stepped out from behind the tree, all smiles and charm.
“Councilors,” he said, “what a surprise. Didn’t even see you.”
“Why are you skulking about with the living girl?” said the triplet. “Yes, I know you’re there. Come here where I can see you.”
Margo fortified herself and walked into the clearing.
“Hello,” Margo said to the ghost council, “I’m Margo.”
One of the trio looked at Quint. “I don’t remember giving you permission to speak to the new occupants.”
“She would’ve spoken to one of us sooner or later,” Quint said, “I just chose sooner.”
“You don’t have the right to make that decision.”
Quint sighed. “Execute me then.”
“There are ways to hurt ghosts, Quint.”
“Yeah. I know.”
“You,” one the triplets turned her eyes on Margo. “How much did you hear?”
“Err, not much…”
The ghost vanished and reappeared inches away from Margo’s face.
“Trying to eavesdrop, are you?”
“Then why are you walking here around with Quint?”
“Leave her alone…” Quint started, but Margo interrupted.
“I just wanted to find more about. You know. The haunted house.”
“Why ask a ghost? Why not explore?” said another of the triplets, “Do you feel you have the right to speak with the dead?”
“It’s all those horror movies the kids watch nowadays,” said one of the other dead girls, “Puts ideas in their heads.”
“You don’t have a sixth sense,” said the ghost in front of Margo.
“It’s not you that’s special. It’s the house.”
“You better respect that.”
“Ghosts are dangerous, girl.”
“So you’d do well to keep out of their affairs.”
“Quint,” said the first girl, glaring, “Take this one back to the house.”
“You want to know what a haunted house is like?” the second girl hissed at Margo, “Eavesdrop on us again, and we’ll show you.”